I intended to go on a philosophical ramble about how inadequate the word “love” was, its elusive definition, application and then pose a question about animals. I decided to just skip all that and jump to the story I really want to tell.
This is a picture of Archy and Mehitabel (I’m curious as to how many of you will recognize those character names). I brought them home from a no-kill cat shelter in Tucson, AZ well over a decade ago after going through a formal adoption process that even included a home visit! That in itself was curious since I lived full time in a camper. Although they lived in separate areas at the shelter, the two bonded immediately upon meeting. I’m guessing their common experience of being uprooted probably played a large role in that process.
Archy was an exceptionally intelligent cat. He would look at me when I talked to him and I am convinced he was trying as hard as he could to try and understand what it was I was saying. Oftentimes, after a conversation (yes, he participated) he would finally look down and deliver a somewhat frustrated meow, as if to say, “I just can’t figure out what you’re saying.”
I was a snow bird and spent my summers in Alaska; occasionally (despite signing a contract that I wouldn’t) I would let my cats outside. One day I got a very uneasy feeling – there was no precipitating event – it was just a FEELING that settled over me. I went out and started to look for Archy. I looked down and saw a single drop of frank blood. I called for him and kept looking, trying to follow the blood trail. It wasn’t long before I found him sitting on the porch of the cabin I was staying at; the right side of his face had been badly damaged, we later hypothesized that an owl had tried to carry him off. To shorten this long story, he underwent extensive surgery by a veterinarian I was friends with and had a significant recovery period. During this time I had to give him food through a feeding tube, and clean and monitor his wounds. It was during this time that Archy and I truly bonded.
So the question I pose is, do animals feel “love”? I know most pet owners will respond with a resounding, “Of course!” But still, you must question if it is simply an anthropomorphization we humans apply to them. We know they empathize. What dog owner hasn’t been brought a cherished, stinky old bone or ratty toy when they found us crying over a relationship break-up or lost job? Why did my seemingly unemotional Mehitabel always come and curl up with me for hours/days when the dark quilt of depression would keep me smothered in bed? But, can we call it love?
Over the many years I watched Archy and Mehitabel interact and could not help but think of a little, old married couple. They groomed each other, slept together, even though Archy snored so loudly it obviously kept Mehitabel awake. Archy was chivalrous in that he always allowed Mehitabel to eat first. They never fought…never. It was a relationship any human being might wish for.
Three years ago I lost my big, gray, lovable Archy. I had lost my beloved pet and my pain was truly intense but… Mehitabel had lost her nearly lifelong companion and I can only imagine, by the grief I witnessed, that her pain had to have been infinitely worse.
I don’t think you can feel pain and grief, to the extent that we did, and not acknowledge that love had to have been firmly in place first. It was never really a question I needed to ask myself.